Trip Report #1- Travel and The International Spy Museum

February 7, 2008 at 9:14 pm | Posted in Military, Travel | 4 Comments

I went on a quick trip to Washington DC earlier in the week so I could visit with my brother and sister-in-law. They were in the area house-hunting prior to a move back from overseas. The scheduling was a little tight and I wish I could have spent more time with them, but I had a great time and we had an opportunity to “catch up” with each other.

Somehow I managed to drag myself out of bed on Monday morning in time to finish packing, walk the dog, and take an early bus into the city. This was a small miracle after how late I was up Sunday night for a Super Bowl party. This was the first time I would be taking a long-distance train out of Penn Station and I was a bit anxious. Having the first two buses pass by my stop without taking on passengers because they were already full didn’t help my anxiety any! The third bus had room though so it was all OK. My upstairs neighbor was also on the bus and we chatted on our way into the city. It was snowing that morning and somehow the snow was making it into the bus through a crack behind her head. We both laughed at being snowed on inside the bus.

My brother and SIL met me at Union Station in DC, we had lunch and then dropped bags off at the hotel. Our first “touristy” stop was off of my brother’s “must see” list. We went to the International Spy Museum. I didn’t have any strong opinions about this ahead of time (good or bad) and was just happy to be spending time with both of them. I LOVED this museum.

When you first enter the museum, you select a cover identity to use during your visit. You have a few minutes to learn your new identity- name, age, birthplace, country of residence, occupation, where you are visiting in the US, and the purpose of your visit. There are several different points in the museum when you can use this information with quizzes administered through interactive displays. About 1/3 of the way in you are quizzed by the border guards as you “enter” the country you have been sent to for your mission. At the 2/3 mark you are given the assignment you must complete while on your mission and then at the very end you are quizzed on both your identity and information related to the mission you were assigned to complete.

The museum displays are a great combination of information/education and engaging presentation formats. There are mini-movies showing different aspects of “spycraft” like how to pick a lock and the art of concealment/costume. Some of the displays have lessons about aspects of spycraft with an associated self-test. One was on dead-drops. It had a large picture on the screen after a description of good qualities for dead drops. You had to look at the picture and identify four different dead-drops in the scene. When you pressed a button the answers would show up below the large picture. My favorite was the Diet Dr Pepper can at the edge of the hiking trial. Apparently Diet Dr Pepper cans are the perfect place to hide a roll of film for your contact to pick up later!

Many stations have computer touchscreens where you can learn about and practice different aspects of spycraft. I really enjoyed the one on cryptology and codes. There was a lot of different information in the display, but what I enjoyed the most was the demonstration based on the Navajo Code Talkers. The Code Talkers used both full words and words spelled out one letter at a time to convey messages. When spelling, they would use words that started with that letter when translated into English. For example, to spell a word that started with “N”, they would first say “tsah” which is the Navajo word for needle. Certain words were assigned to stand for military terms that had no literal translation in the Navajo language. For example, “Jay-sho”, or buzzard, was used for a bomber (plane).

After learning about the Code Talkers, there was an exercise where you could listen to a phrase and then decode it. While listening to the phrase, a brief list of Navajo words, their literal translation and the use of the word by the Code Talkers was on the screen. It was a three step process to decode the message. First, you had to identify the Navajo word you were hearing, find it in the brief dictionary and then remember what the word stood for in English. I had fun with this one!

The Navajo Code Talkers were remarkably effective. When looking up some references to include with this post, I found some great historical information on the Navy Website. One of the main entries on the Code Talkers included this:

The Japanese, who were skilled code breakers, remained baffled by the Navajo language. The Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, said that while they were able to decipher the codes used by the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps, they never cracked the code used by the Marines. The Navajo code talkers even stymied a Navajo soldier taken prisoner at Bataan. (About 20 Navajos served in the U.S. Army in the Philippines.) The Navajo soldier, forced to listen to the jumbled words of talker transmissions, said to a code talker after the war, “I never figured out what you guys who got me into all that trouble were saying.”

If you would like to read more, this fact sheet from the Navy website is a good start. There is also a copy of the information in the official Navajo Code Talkers’ Dictionary from 1945 available here. At least one Navajo Code Talker has a personal website detailing his experiences- Merril Sandoval.

There were many other great displays at the International Spy Museum, including a lot of information on the Enigma project, examples of “spy cameras”, etc. I would definitely recommend this museum. Really little children might not find too much fun, but school age kids would be able to learn a lot through the hands-on displays.



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  1. Wow! I wish we had managed to fit that museum in while we are there. There’s so much to do that I think we could get back there again and still see nothing twice. Well except the Senate Gallery, I could have sat there for hours.

    Ummm….did you manage to complete your mission?

  2. Of course I completed the mission! I remembered everything I was supposed to and the border agents didn’t suspect a thing. My autographed picture of the cowgirl queen with the hidden microdot was safely delivered per mission instructions.

  3. I scoffed at the “spy Museum” when we were visiting in DC. Now I wish I hadn’t. Soiunds very interesting.
    There was a movie based on the Navajo coders – “Wind Talkers?” or something like that.
    Interesting post.

  4. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy the museum much. I honestly went just because it was something my brother wanted to do. It ended up being great though. I definitely recommend going the next time you are in DC.

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